[This story contains spoilers for The Black Phone.]
It’s been 10 years since Sinister’s creative team delivered one of Blumhouse’s earliest low-budget success stories, but the trio of C. Robert Cargill, Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke have answered the call yet again with The Black Phone.
Blumhouse and Universal’s latest supernatural horror film opened to a stellar $23 million this past weekend, and writer-producer Cargill is especially grateful considering a 2022 release wasn’t originally in the cards. Cargill first met Derrickson at a time when he was a still film critic, and during a life-altering get-together in Las Vegas, Cargill pitched Sinister to the filmmaker, initiating their now long-running creative partnership. Sinister would go on to make nearly 30 times its $3 million production budget, and the duo was then recruited by Marvel Studios to helm 2016’s Doctor Strange.
Despite a box office haul of nearly $700 million and critical acclaim, Derrickson departed the follow-up to his 2016 film, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, in early 2020. The initial plan was to save Black Phone until after Multiverse wrapped.
But as Cargill notes in a recent spoiler conversation with THR, those plans swiftly changed when Derrickson left Doctor Strange 2 and prioritized The Black Phone, which he and Cargill had already adapted from Joe Hill’s 2004 short story. The screenwriter and novelist also discusses the backstory of Hawke’s “The Grabber,” as well as the original plan to completely shoot around the character’s face. Then he looks back at his most emotional day on set while shooting a last-minute rewrite.
You and Scott [Derrickson] were expected to work on [Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness], and then circumstances changed. Did the two of you need a bit of time to soul search and collect yourselves? Or did you head straight for the desk drawer and dust off The Black Phone?
Well, I wasn’t working on the film; I was working on other stuff. So we didn’t have to do any soul searching because this was the movie we already had on deck for Scott to do after [Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness]. When we wrote it, we were like, “Well, Scott’s going on Strange, so he’s not gonna be able to direct it. We’ll find a great director to direct it.” So we sent it out to two directors, and thankfully, they both passed on it. They were very hard gets to begin with, and once it came back, we were still going to go out to other directors.
But then Scott was like, “I really want to direct this one. I want to make this movie. I have to make this movie. Can we wait?” He knew it was a big ask of me because it was this thing that I’d written and we weren’t going to sell it until it was time for him to do it. So that could mean a couple of years before we could make it, but I was like, “You know what? I’ll wait. Yeah, I want you to direct this. I think it’s right. Let’s wait and do that.” So it was already on deck, and as soon as he came back [from Multiverse], the answer was, “Let’s go make Black Phone.”
So I understand that the purpose of the breakfast scene was to establish that the two siblings walk on eggshells around their father (Jeremy Davies), but the first thing I thought was, “Oh, he values peace and quiet at the breakfast table, much like Reynolds Woodcock.” I’m sure I’m projecting here, but was a Phantom Thread homage ever actually discussed?
It was not an homage at all. It was very much setting up the “walking on eggshells,” as you said. It’s the fear and the danger of misbehaving while also setting up what would further his alcoholism. This guy drinks himself into a hangover many nights, and it’s to the point that he’s abysmal to live with. So we wanted to establish that pretty readily.
Regarding Bruce’s (Tristan Pravong) line, “Your arm is mint. You almost had me,” I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use the word mint to describe someone’s pitching arm or ability. It’s a word that’s usually used to describe the condition of an item. So because that line caught my ear, I had a feeling that it would be said again, which it was. So did you purposefully choose a unique adjective to make extra certain that we’d glom on to it? [Writer’s Note: In Joe Hill’s short story, Bruce refers to Finney’s arm as “dirty.”]
Several things in this movie were very much of the era and what was cool at the time. They are very much steeped in the 1970s, such as things that were said in Scott’s childhood, in particular. There’s another line when Gwen is talking about wanting to marry Danny Bonaduce. She says, “He’s so crucial,” and that’s definitely a phrase that went out of favor. When Robin asks Finn how he’s doing in the bathroom, Finn says, “You know, just keeping on keeping on,” which Scott and his friends said at that age. So we were very much trying to capture the language of that era.
Ethan Hawke has said that he’s avoided playing villains because he doesn’t want audiences to bring that baggage or association to his subsequent roles. Is that partially why you guys chose to obstruct the Grabber’s face for most of the film?
That was in the script from the get-go. We wanted to keep the monster mythic, and that meant keeping him out of sight in a lot of ways. In fact, when we shot the [abduction] scene with him as a magician, I was actually surprised that we saw so much of his face. Scott and I had originally talked about not seeing it at all and just shooting around it. But at that point, we weren’t writing for an actor such as Ethan. And then Scott was like, “Well, we’ve got Ethan Hawke. We can’t not show Ethan Hawke at least once. So we’ve got to get a clear look at him.”
So by the time Ethan got the script, the idea was that he wouldn’t really appear fully on screen, and that he would be behind a mask most of the time, which may have made his decision easier. We didn’t discuss that specifically, but he just told us, “I loved the script so much that I had to do it, even though I’ve never done this before.” So that choice wasn’t for the sake of his career at all; it was always for the sake of the story. So when he signed on, he was all in, and the mask was part of what we’d already done.
A memorable mask is a key ingredient in this genre, and you guys absolutely nailed it.
In the short story, the character is a clown, and after he’d read the first draft, Joe Hill came to us with a hat-in-hand mea culpa. He was like, “This is a hard ask, but when I wrote this story, it was 20 years after [Stephen King’s] It had come out. Nobody was thinking about clowns, and I was thinking of John Wayne Gacy. So there was no real comparison at the time, but now that [2017’s] It is a big hit, people are going to feel like I’m aping my dad with another clown. So can we change that?” And we were like, “Yeah, of course we can, but to what?” And that’s when Joe said, “I have this great idea of this whole magic show act from the ‘30s and ‘40s where magicians would dress up as a magician for half the time, and then for the other half, they would dress up as the devil and do other tricks as the devil. So I thought that would be really cool.” And we were like, “Yeah, that’s rad. We love that. Let’s do that.” And that’s where Scott spun off into the mask.
Did each variation of the mask reflect The Grabber’s mood at the time?
Yeah, and each mask is also the character that he’s playing. That’s really a thing. In the film, he’s asked if he’s the one that killed all the other boys, and he goes, “No, that was someone else.” So each mask represents a different part of the ritual for him and a different aspect of his personality. It was something that Scott had come up with because he was like, “Well, we’ve got to get him to emote in some way, and you can’t really emote behind a mask. What if he has an interchangeable mask, and depending on the mood of the ritual, he would change the bottom of the mask?” So that turned into what is now a fascinating visual representation of this character.
To me, the film is about the cycle of abuse across generations, and The Grabber mentioned that the phone hasn’t worked since he was a boy. So are you of the mind that he was basically recreating this twisted “Naughty Boy” game that his dad made him play?
Or some other family member, yeah. We don’t quite go into that, but yeah, the thread that you’re supposed to pull at there is that this is something he is trying to recapture. Even being a magician may play a part of that nostalgia. He’s doing this magic act in the ‘70s that was popular in the ‘30s and ’40s, so there’s some nostalgia there and some echoes of the past that created him. He has ritualized all this as a form of somehow reliving that or re-experiencing that or transferring that.
Conversely, his brother, Max (James Ransone), likely endured the same abuse, but he turned to drugs and obsession as coping mechanisms. That also got me thinking about Gwen and how she handles her abuse much differently than Finney (Mason Thames). You wanted us to juxtapose the two sets of siblings, right?
Absolutely. The film is very much about dysfunction, the resilience of youth and how we can overcome that trauma. We can allow it to make us stronger, or it can damage us irreparably as it does with Grabber and Max.
Since Gwen and Finney both grew up in the same abusive household, why do you think she was willing to mix it up with bullies and Finney wasn’t?
I wanted to write the little sister I always wish I had. Horror is a medium that’s very open to heroines in a way that many other genres haven’t been, but I feel like there’s certain types of heroines that we see over and over again. And we don’t get to see the strong little girl. That’s not something we’re offered a lot, and I wanted to write one, especially for all my horror-loving friends that are women. I wanted to write a character for them that represented who they were or who they wanted to be when they were children. I also liked the idea of the younger sister being the strong one and Finn being the one who can take a punch, but is afraid to throw one.
Finn is hesitant. He hasn’t come into his own yet. He doesn’t believe in himself. He doesn’t have that confidence, and we see that in the relationship he has with Donna [Rebecca Clarke]. Here’s this girl who is practically throwing herself at him and being like, “Hey guy, I’m right here,” but he’s still way too nervous to really talk to her because he just lacks confidence overall and is always afraid that he’s going to fail. But then he is put into a situation where he has no choice but to succeed or he will die. And so this is what finally brings out the confidence in him. So I wanted to juxtapose Finn and Gwen. She has her own issues, but confidence isn’t one of them.
If you were to imagine the future, do you think the father can change his stripes?
Maybe, maybe not. The father, in particular, has a struggle. It’s more than just not understanding how to deal with his kids. He’s a guy who’s wrestling with the tragic death of his wife, and he’s left alone with these kids who he doesn’t know how to relate to or teach. He’s terrified that his daughter is going to go the same way that his wife did, and he knows no other way to get her to stop than trying to literally beat the devil out of her. So can that person, an alcoholic, change? Yeah, they can, but not usually. So I’m of the opinion that the father still very much loves them and does his best, but his best isn’t good enough. So these two are going to have to get through their childhood together.
What are you willing to say about the link between Gwen and Finney’s supernatural abilities that seemingly came from their mother?
It’s a balancing act in the beginning as we see Gwen being the one with supernatural powers and helping out her brother. But as you put things together, you come to realize that Gwen has essentially half of her mother’s powers and Finney has the other half. It’s just that Finney has never been in a situation where he’s experienced them before, so this is his first experience with these powers. And the phone itself is kind of a conduit to those powers, which they both got from their mom.
Madeleine McGraw, as Gwen, is revelatory. Her “fartknocker” scene got a big reaction both times I saw the movie. Was that her audition scene?
I was not in on the auditions. That’s Scott’s purview. But Scott has a superpower in that he just knows how to find kids who are incredible. We have not worked on a film with a child actor who was not superlative in every way. He just has a nose for it.
After putting an end to the Grabber, Finn will definitely become famous nationwide. His life rights will be sold to the highest bidder for the sake of books and movies. Since this happened in 1978, who would you want to direct his story, in-universe?
In-universe, probably [John] Carpenter. It feels like a Carpenter movie, but it could also very easily be a Wes Craven movie. At that time, he would’ve done something like that. So they would be the two go-tos.
With kids being abducted left and right in this film, some of today’s generation might be wondering why these parents didn’t just pick up their kids from school, but this was a very different time, especially in a working-class neighborhood. It was the latchkey generation.
Yeah, it’s really discordant because that is exactly how we had to live. School buses had a certain radius around the school where they wouldn’t pick people up. So if you lived a mile and a half from the school, then you walked. You didn’t take the bus. At the same time, there was this long, deep-running fear of serial killers and child abductors, and there were a lot of serial killers at the time, specifically because the FBI hadn’t created its offshoot to deal with these things. So they didn’t have a department to track people down, and they didn’t have profilers until 1984. So these serial killers were able to cross state lines and commit crimes, and nobody was communicating with one another.
So it was kind of the golden age of being a serial killer, so to speak, and we were all terrified. We all heard the story of Adam Walsh [in 1981] and the horrible thing that happened to him once he disappeared from a Sears in Florida. He was playing video games at an Atari kiosk, and then he and some other kids got kicked out after a fight. And then nine days later, they found his head floating in a river. So it was a horror story that every parent told us and terrified us with in order to not go with strangers. But then they’d have us walk to school the next day.
So it’s easy to think, “Why didn’t you take the kids?” but they had to go to work. The boomer generation was the first generation where mom and dad both went to work and nobody stayed home with the kids, generally. So that meant you had to be self-sufficient, and you had to go to school on your own. You then had to come home with a key, the whole latchkey thing, and feed yourself and hang out for two, three hours while you waited for mom and dad to get home. So that was just the way it was, and we wanted to capture that in film. We wanted to showcase that era because it really has hit home with a lot of folks our age, who are like, “Oh god, that was my childhood.” So that’s exactly what this was like. It was very much of the era.
During production, did you make any notable revisions based on what was or wasn’t working?
There’s not really a lot. Scott and I knew what we were doing. The biggest change we made on the day was when we shot the scene where Finney is learning how to use the phone as a weapon. And in the way it was written, Robin is on the other end of the phone, but we don’t actually see him. And Scott was like, “This is wrong. We need to see Robin. We have to have this.” So he called [Miguel Cazarez Mora] at the last minute and said, “Can you come in today?” And he was like, “Yeah, of course I can.” So he came in, and the two boys coordinated that choreography so well together. The first time they did that scene, a bunch of us got emotional on set. It was something that we did not imagine in the script, and when we saw it in front of us, it just hit us like a ton of bricks. It was like, “Wow, we really have something here.” So that’s the biggest change during production. [Writer’s Note: Derrickson told THR that they actually had to fly Mora back to set since he’d already wrapped.]
Given Robin’s fighting prowess, do you think he gave the Grabber a run for his money?
Oh, absolutely. Robin, Bruce and Vance absolutely fought back, which is part of the whole game of Naughty Boy. So I think Robin gave him [a run] for sure.
I quite liked the Super 8-formatted dreams and fantasies. Was that motif meant to be a nod to Sinister?
Yes and no. Scott loves Super 8. He loves the look of it. He loves the grit of it, and nobody else is really playing around with it anymore. And so he does. He knows how to shoot with it. He knows how to pick the right stock because there are different Super 8 stocks. If you shoot on the wrong stock, you get a look that looks almost fake, even though it is real. So he wanted to play around with Super 8 and make the dreams different. And sure enough, it really did differentiate things. It allowed us to go back and learn about these kids and see their abductions and see them in the shape of dreams. And then we played around with that when a memory turns into a dream. We started with Finney’s memory of watching pinball Vance get into a fight at a minimart, and then we crossed over into Gwen’s dream. So it just really lands.
Do you and Derrickson officially know what you’re doing next?
Yeah, we have our next film lined up. We can’t talk about it yet, but we have a film we’re hoping to shoot later this year.
Well, congratulations on The Black Phone, and thank you for your candor.
When they said this was a spoiler interview, I was like, “Finally, I can actually answer questions.” When I go and see a film with a Q&A afterwards, I want to hear the director explain themselves, and my biggest gripe as a filmmaker is when they’re like, “Ah, I want to leave that up to the audience.” And it’s like, “No, you’re a storyteller! Tell us a story and tell us why you did this. There’s no reason to hide it.” So I just have always been against the “I’ll let you figure it out” answer. It’s like, “No, you made this movie. You put a lot of time into it. You clearly thought about it, and I want to know what you think.” So I was more than happy to do this.
The Black Phone is now in theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.